Washington’s and Seoul’s contentious multi-round talks for a new agreement on splitting the cost of keeping 28,500 US troops in South Korea have led to unnecessary tensions between the two allies at a time when Kim Jong Un is again ratcheting up tensions in the region with renewed projectile launches. While US President Donald Trump’s tough bargaining to protect the American taxpayer is right in spirit, the fivefold increase he is asking of Seoul is an excessive opening bid that threatens the strength of the US-ROK alliance and overlooks the strategic value of American forces on South Korean soil.
Taking into account the security challenges of Northeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region, the desire for improved deals must not override American strategic needs in the region. As such, striking a balance between cost sharing arrangements and addressing national defense interests are vital amid the ongoing North Korea nuclear crisis and the growing US-China rivalry.
While the current disagreement is unlikely to cause a collapse of the US-South Korean alliance, there have been consequences to the drawn-out dispute. Last November, the defense ministers of Seoul and Beijing agreed to “foster bilateral exchanges” and “cooperation in defense,” proceed with the establishment of additional military hotlines, and arrange a visit by South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo to China. The purpose of the deepened cooperation, it was stated, was to ensure stability in Northeast Asia.
The Trump administration’s demand of a sharp rise in the amount that Seoul pays for US troops – an increase to $5 billion from the $923 million that was paid to Washington in 2018 – has bred resentment in South Korea. A poll in 2019 indicated that South Koreans view the ask as too much and disapprove of agreeing to such a deal.
The public sentiment expressed in the survey indicate that caving to Trump would be political suicide for South Korean President Moon Jae-in. This compounds the existing difficulties of dealing with the left-leaning president, who had a history of opposing US foreign policy long before he came to office.
An important factor in Trump’s negotiating position is his belief that US allies are free riders and that they ought to pay more for the security benefits provided by the American military. According to reporting by Bloomberg, the US president advocates a policy called “Cost Plus 50,” a demand that allies finance the cost of hosting US military facilities and troops in addition to a 50% premium for the “privilege” of Washington’s protection. Part of this proposed policy would require that countries that host American troops, that is, South Korea, Germany and Japan, pay five to six times as much as they currently do.
While the “free rider” charge may be true of some of Washington’s European allies – 19 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 29 member states have not lived up to the 2%-of-GDP defense-spending goal set at the 2014 Wales summit – this is not true of Seoul, which spends 2.6% of GDP on defense on a yearly basis. Beyond this, since 2015 South Korea has made $13 billion in American arms purchases and paid more than 90% of the cost to upgrade US Army Garrison Humphreys, the largest American overseas military base.
From a simple arithmetic perspective, it can be argued that Washington has at times gotten the upper hand in its transactions with Seoul.
However, Trump’s concerns about America’s defense relationships do not end with cost issues. He also thinks they lack reciprocity. According to accounts, Trump believes that Washington bears too much responsibility in these relationships given that the US is required to come to the aid of allies in the event of an attack while they are not obliged to do the same for Washington.
Yet as analysts Sue Mi Terry, Bruce Klingner and Jung Pak have pointed out, this ignores the fact that Seoul has fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Washington in every conflict since the Korean War as well as participating in anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa, contributing to US-led peacekeeping operations worldwide and, most recently, sending a naval unit to support American patrols in the Strait of Hormuz.
By every measure, Seoul has demonstrated its commitment to the alliance and served as an important contributor to the postwar order.
Last, Washington’s security alliance with Seoul provides another advantage that arguably overrides in value the relationship’s perceived costs and burdens: South Korea’s strategic geography. By hosting US forces, South Korea contributes to the deterrence of regional states that are hostile to American interests, that is, China, North Korea and Russia, and serves as a key launching point for operations on the Korean Peninsula and in the broader region.
President Trump deserves credit for bargaining hard on behalf of American taxpayers. However, better deals should not come at the expense of security objectives or the values that the American and South Korean peoples share as sister democracies and brothers-in-arms.
South Korea and the United States are well served by their defense treaty, which amounts to more than commercial transactions. As with all relationships, this alliance must be nurtured to address the needs of our time to ensure the security of a rapidly rising part of the world where Washington will continue to have interests for years to come.